Tag Archives: Alan D. Wagner

Perspectives on Improvisation. Revised and expanded version of a paper presented at the first Warren and Patricia Benson Forum on Creativity, The Eastman School of Music, 2006.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) gave a lecture at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, during the summer of 1966.  He was asked by an audience member to “Improvise something”.

Ellington replied, “I can’t”, and immediately itemized the decisions he had to make before he could play: choose the instrument, choose a tonal language, choose a character or mood, decide where to position his hands, how many fingers to use, and how loud and fast to play. He then proceeded to play what he called a ‘composition’.

In 1971 I accepted a teaching position at York University in Toronto conditional upon me being able to do “whatever I wanted to do”. I chose to oversee, a course in improvisation. The students were majors in music, dance, visual arts and liberal studies.

In my studio I hung bells, drums, gongs, cymbals, temple bowls and other exotic percussion instruments from around the world. No specialized skills are required to play these instruments-one has only to hit them, and their sound possibilities are almost limitless. I did not include a melodic instrument. The students, about 8 of them, met with me two hours, two days a week for one semester.

I asked them to play these instruments, but gave them no instructions on how.  I wanted to find out what would happen if they could “do whatever they wanted to do.” I had some practical knowledge of improvisation, but was as new to this studio experience as were they. The prospect of hearing their music excited me and I wanted them to discover sounds without being influenced by me. I hoped they’d be captivated by their explorations. They were eager; delighted by the instruments and thrilled with the idea of no rules.

After a few sessions, even the most enthusiastic students had exhausted their ideas and for the most part, sat self-consciously mute. At that point I began playing with them, individually and groups of two or three. For a while the students were rejuvenated. But these collaborations, as well, lost their spirit. During one session a student began to sing and this reminder of melody encouraged one or two other students to bring melodic instruments to class. But their playing and singing was too timid and rather than broadening the scope of their improvisations, the inclusion of pitch made the music more awkward.  Aware of their quandary, the students suggested ideas for guiding their improvisations and I gave them some instructions from compositions I was playing as a professional.

Nothing worked for long. The students were frustrated and perplexed by their inability to understand why they could not make a meaningful music alone or with others. Our sessions had not even given them a repertoire of ideas and techniques to help them launch new explorations. (They were familiar with Pop music, but couldn’t isolate its elements and apply them.) Their music was almost expressionless, though occasionally enlivened by sparks of energy. We finished the semester listening to recordings of contemporary music and discussing our studio experiences. The classes went on for three more semesters, but even with fresh blood, the music  continued “dribbling-to-a-tacit”.

The novelty of the course had quickly evaporated. For youngsters with little or no background in music, four hours a week of free improvisation were too much, and too much even with rules to guide them. They lacked experience with the basic elements of music: rhythm, tempo and dynamics. And, though we discussed and experimented with duration, silence, form and structure, they could not comfortably apply these ideas to their playing.1

Vinko Globokar (b. 1934), former director of IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination of Acoustics and Music) in Paris, virtuoso trombonist, composer and improviser, wrote that improvisers “must have a similar reservoir of possibilities-aesthetic points of view.  .  .” 2


It was this reservoir of possibilities – aesthetic points of view that brought Nexus together in 1971.3 Though our educations differed in some details, we shared the gestures and techniques of trained Western percussionists. We had been exposed to and played Jazz, Rock and Roll, Blues, Country, Folk, Classical, Contemporary and military music. We were flexible in our music making and had a profound interest in sound. We were also close friends.

Nexus was part of a burgeoning interest in foreign ethnic music and our conscious decision to collect and play instruments from other cultures was both technically and musically liberating. The study of western percussion had made us, as some wag put it, “overeducated and underemployed”. Unlike my university students,the sounds of these “new” instruments refreshed our ears and inspired our first informal collaborations. These improvisations had a joie de vivre.

The spirit and communicative skills of Nexus were the inspiration for composer Warren Benson(1924-2005) to produce Nexus’ first concert at the Eastman School of Music in Kilbourn Hall.4 He wrote a poem for the program:

“.  .  . instruments from all the world
Musicians from two countries
and four private universes
Coming together
to celebrate being together.  .  .”

Lukas Foss (1922-2007), the successor to Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA and founder in 1953 of the UCLA Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, told me he’d given up on improvisation because the performers had quickly developed a repertoire of gestures and techniques that, by repetition, made all the performances sound pretty much the same. To Foss, this “reliance on the comfort of the familiar”, as he put it, did not produce improvisation, or, if you will, interesting music.

Nexus formulated no rules to govern its improvisations, but over time, we developed a Foss-like “reliance on the familiar” and absorbed other conventions – Foss’ “repertoire of gestures and techniques”. Particular sounds became signals for change, i.e., a low gong would change loud, fast and dense to soft, slow and sparse. A sudden sharp attach might precipitate a frenzy. Our improvisations tended to be in A-B-A form – fast, slow, fast or loud, soft, loud etc. We gradually quelled our tendency to “vamp until ready”, and our improvisations became shorter, more compact. We learned the values of less-is-more.

To maintain the freshness of our improvisations, we sometimes change our instrumentation completely. We also invite guests who have a “repertoire of gestures and techniques”. In a spirit of collegiality, Nexus usually lets our guests lead, thereby creating a “concerto” experience.

For me, Nexus’ most successful improvisational moments were achieved when everyone did “What they want to do”, without regard for homogeneity. This rare occurrence created a fantasy of concurrent, individual expressions in exquisite balance, and the music floated over us and the audience.

I sent a cassette tape of a Nexus improvisation to Globokar and his response was typically direct (I paraphrase): “You play beautifully together, but it is North American. It is totally rhythmical, pleasant and traditionally structured. It doesn’t interest me. When our percussionist comes to an improvisation concert or recording session, he brings at most three instruments and never repeats a sound.” Globokar’s rule for improvisation was, “always search for something new, never repeat a sound”.5

Nexus’ early free improvisation era has been credited, at least in part, with spawning new professional percussion ensembles. Yet today, all the younger percussion ensembles play written music and, to my knowledge, none of them improvise in public. As my colleague Bob Becker said, “People were more interested in how we played than what we played”. Nexus was an unanalyzable anomaly.

During the last century, composers involved performers in the creation of their works. I experienced this first hand, often under the personal direction of the composer, while performing with New Music Concerts of Toronto, Ontario. These works, in whole or part, were Aleatoric; 6 “ music in which elements traditionally determined by the composer were determined either by a process of random selection or chance operations chosen by the composer, or through the exercise of choice by the performer.” 7 Usually, there was one or more of six principal directives present in these compositions: “Imitate”; “Integrate”; “Hesitate”; “Do the Opposite”; “Do Something Different” and “Improvise”. Improvise was the least effective as it meant to classically trained musicians, “do whatever you want”.8 The results,intentional or not, were often at variance with the composer’s (unstated) intentions.


In group improvisations, players have complete freedom of expression, yet cannot with certainty control the beginning or end of the music; the beginning or end of a diminuendo or crescendo; they cannot determine dynamics; instrumentation; range (gamut); timbre; tempo; or, for that matter, any occurrence of sound or silence other than those which they create individually.  And even those sounds and silences can be, and often are, rendered inaudible by a colleague. (A tutti silence, cessation of playing, one of composed music’s most gratifying experiences, has practically no chance of occurring in a group improvisation.)

After a Nexus concert in Japan that included a free improvisation, the composer, Toru Takemitsu (1930-96) said to me, “Nexus should not improvise”.

In order to achieve consistently high levels of communication, group improvisers must be guided by rules. These rules may be pre-ordained or, as in the case of Nexus, gradually assimilated during performances over time. The experience of improvising without rules can be fun, but rarely produces memorable music. Memorable is the work of composers. However, free improvisations by certain individuals, alone in a room with their instrument(s), can be an invaluable learning tool. Percussionists by nature “noodle”, and this kind of habitual improvising helps marry them to their instruments.

The most captivating improvisation I ever heard was performed by the great Japanese percussionist Yasunori Yamaguchi. Yasunori’s playing of his “Time in Celestial”(1988) took place during a series of Japanese music concerts in New York City.9 During the four days of concerts, his performance received the loudest and most prolonged applause from the sold out audiences. When I asked him about his piece, he showed me some brief notes he’d written on a piece of paper, reminders, or, if you will, rules.


I wish to thank the students of York University who participated in my improvisation course,1972-75, my colleagues in Nexus whose improvisations have always amazed me and Austin Clarkson, Professor emeritus of music, York University, Stepan Wolpe and John Cage scholar, who arranged Nexus’ first university residency at York University in 1973 and whose questions and editorial skills greatly improved my initial efforts with this article.


For examples of Nexus improvisations with guests, see: out of the blue, Nexus and Fritz Hauser, Nexus records-10814 and Garden of Sounds with Richard Stoltzman, BIS records-CD1108.

Spontaneous Nexus improvisations can be heard on: ORIGINS, Nexus records 10295. .


1 For other pedagogical approaches to free improvisation, see Cahn, William L., (2005). Creative Music Making (Four Simple Steps to Cultivating the Inner Musician), (New York/London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Books, Inc.)

2 Globokar, Vinko, (1970). Reacting (Musique en Jeu), trans. by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen.

3 Wagner, Alan D. (2005). A Bio-Bibliography of Composer Warren Benson. (Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press), p. 63. The original Nexus was John Wyre, Bob Becker, Bill Cahn and the author, but we had yet to choose our name.

4 May 21, 1971. Soon after the Kilbourn Hall concert, Russell Hartenberger (b.1944) and Michael Craden (1941-1982) had become members.

5 I first encountered “Globokar’s Rule” in Japan in 1970 when we improvised a duet based on an idea by Lukas Foss. We wore hospital wristbands with various symbols that told us when and how to play. I used a Javanese cowbell, a marimba mallet and a contra-bass bow, Vinko, his trombone. I hit and bowed he cowbell for a while and was pretty much finished. Vinko played sounds I’d never imagined and then dismantled his trombone; playing the mouthpiece and tubing. He then took my bow and as I sat spellbound, he bowed everything “bowable”. When the piece finally ended, Vinko had performed a veritable trombone concerto.

6 From Latin, from Aleator, ‘dice player’, from alea ‘die’, (The New Oxford Dictionary of English, (1998)

7 This is a composite definition drawn from The Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986), Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia and The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998)

8 Globokar, Vinko, (1970).

9 Toru Takemitsu and Sound Space Ark, Japan Society, New York City, July 5-8, 1988. The first ‘Bravos’ of these concerts occurred after a performance by Yamaguchi of Takemitsu’s “Munari by Munari”(1961). Essentially an improvisation directed by a book of colored pages, through-cut  with geometric designs. The colors and designs determined the player’s response.

Copyright © 2009, Robin Engelman


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